Masters degrees – choose correctly

For Bachelor students on their final years, the Masters stage becomes an important stepping stone to a good career. Of course, as with everything in life, the Masters degree stage has its own challenges, opportunities, costs and benefits. As such it should be analysed and planned carefully.

The main decision components are:
1. Definition of quality.
Quality is not the holy grail of education, as no one knows what it really MEANS. Definitions are offered that suit those that provide those very definitions. So each person must define for themselves what they understand to be a “quality education”:
– Overall prestige of the institution. Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, MIT. Names that assure immediate amazing careers. Or an institution in each country that everyone knows, fears, respects. A good guide is the Times Higher Education Ranking.
– Narrow prestige (reputation) for something very specific, showing leadership in that narrow area. Finance? Wharton. Luxury goods? Monacco.
– Knowledge passed in class. Top specialists in their fields, advertised on the university websites (good universities have nothing to hide!) with extensive CVs, top publications, senior positions in business or government. Professors with international reputations, authors of books used in universities around the world, scientists with publications in top international journals, people employed by top “think tanks”, etc.
– Contact with the business world (or diplomatic or administrative or technological) – are the teachers in corporate employment, or were they senior directors of departments? Ex-Minister teaching a course, Diplomats, CEOs, etc. Can they teach by giving their real-life examples? Can the teachers be useful later, as business or job contacts?
– Market-perceived quality, measured by speed and level of graduate employment after programme, the competition for graduates among companies, speed of advancement.
– Strong networking, both in terms of the contacts that you will make during your studies (your classmates will go far and high, so they will useful) as well as the strength of the Alumni Office, managing the alumni mafia, which loves to employ later graduates of its OWN university.

2. The trade-off between price and “quality”.
Whatever you define as quality, it will cost you. Top universities are expensive because… they can charge those prices. Ferrari will not lower its price. Nor will Harvard. In USA and Europe many universities advertise their programmes by showing how much money their alumni earn. MBA schools show how much MORE you will make after their MBA. Understood?
As soon as you define, which outcomes are important for you, compare them to the fees that you will be required to pay. Consider the fees, especially when you are a non-EU or non-US student planning to go there – they will charge you more (that is their business model).
If you have no money and want to do a Masters degree cheaply, do not expect any good outcomes. You will get your piece of paper. If you need a Masters only to tick a box on your application, then the cheap programme is for you. But at some point, someone might need some knowledge from you, and … you will not have it. Nor any useful skills.
Consider loans or scholarships – have someone else take the financial burden of your studies, so that you can repay it over time, while already having a well-paying job.

3. Time/speed.
In the world there exist two main modes of education: full-time (Monday-Friday), and part-time (weekends), with part-time usually taking longer to complete, as the hours are spread over less contact days. Europe is all about Bologna, and 90% of Masters programmes last 2 years. UK is sabotaging Bologna and still offering a one year Masters. Full-time means little opportunity to work, while if you need to work to pay for you programme then part-time is the solution, but you may have visa issues.
Masters programmes will be either:
– Low on content, to fit it into a one year stretch;
– Very intensive to fit everything into a short time (then you cannot work);
– Longer-lasting, to provide all the courses you need;
Every option has trade-offs. Fast = shorter time to start work. Longer = more knowledge. Intensive = no time for anything else. Easy/shallow = only get diploma (no real knowledge).

4. Selection of correct specialisation.
We assume that you have, at least, decided on the rough area of knowledge that you need, for example Finance.
The next step is to identify what you want, need, or think will be useful. You can pursue:
– Very broad education, in the general field of “Finance”, with some core courses (set by the university, required) and choose what you like or find interesting through elective subjects;
– A very narrow specialisation, with very deep courses providing you with cutting-edge knowledge, skills and understanding;
Those pursuing the first type, will want a career in “general” finance, from staffing cash registers, through assisting stock traders, to doing analysis in a bank. A job awaits anywhere. An average job. Those pursuing the second, narrow type, will gain employment in appropriate institutions, and probably get it faster, earn more and get promoted faster. In narrow specialisations, the level of competition is higher as people are more focused and they contribute stronger KPIs.
As in all these analyses, the message is clear – decide where you want to work and pursue that with determination!

5. Home or abroad.
Highest quality is located in only a few countries – most of you do not live in them. Remember, quality comes at a price, so make sure you can afford it.
Going abroad has its costs – financial expenditures (tuition, flights, living expenses), stress for yourself, family and friends, lost relationships, traumas, visa problems, travel problems, risk of sicknesses, etc.
But studying abroad offers amazing opportunities (alongside the advanced knowledge) – about this I will write in the future. For now, we can state that foreign degrees from good countries are more valuable in the heated battle for top jobs.
If you cannot find funds for study abroad, spend money on a top local university. And consider the opportunities outlined below (a second, better, foreign degree later, a few years into your career).

6. Immediately or not?
Rushing into a Masters degree immediately after your Bachelor is only one option available to all. In reality, you can:
– Finish the Bachelor and go to work, get the job, get yourself sorted out, gain the first real-life experiences. Then, after a year or two, take the Masters and do it alongside your work, adding the second degree title to your now-interesting CV;
– Finish the Bachelor and never do a Masters degree, as your career might not require further formal qualifications;
– Take the Masters immediately after Bachelor, “get education over with”;
The last option has some subcomponent issues. Rushing into a Masters might seem simple, you get a “MA” tick on your CV, but it could be a mistake – you should think about what you really need and want. Maybe a delayed Masters, once you get some money, will be better (it will help your career)? Or, maybe, after 2-3 years of work, you will see an opportunity in something that needs a Masters degree, and THEN, you do one, a correct one? For example, you did finance, but then you see the market need for forensic accountants?
Overall, the biggest danger to delayed Masters is that you will not want to go back to university, so many people “rush through” that second stage of education. In essence they waste time and money.

So, to finish off – a Masters degree should make sense, as part of your overall life/work strategy. If that is the case, then you already know: where, when, how, why you will do the Masters. Otherwise, do any masters immediately, to have the “MA/MSc” title by your name, or WAIT. Wait until you know what you need to do.
Follow your plan! Do not leave anything to chance!